Her Primary Obligation is to EscapeTue 26 Jun
THE MARS ROOM by RACHEL KUSHNER. London, Penguin, 2018.
SWEET DAYS OF DISCIPLINE by FLEUR JAEGY. London, And Other Stories, 2018.
Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years, for murder. She is imprisoned until she dies, still in prison. Her identity as a free person has been wiped out.
Kushner's account starts with Romy as one of sixty shackled women being bussed to Stanville Penitentiary. The convicts include the butch transgender Conan; and a child-killer whose prissy yapping annoys Romy. She doesn't like people who entrap her in any way. She worked as a dancer in the Mars Room night-club of the title because grinding was less personal than conversation.
"No smiling, no fake personality no pretend complicity."
Eventually somebody from the Mars Room entrapped her, too. He was a customer called Eddy who stalked her. She changed her phone number, moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles to escape him. Finally in desperation she struck him with an iron bar. This was a bad move because instead of a sleazeball, the legal system has now entrapped her.
At trial, poor people without lawyers have extenuating circumstances ignored. The bad luck of poverty becomes self-perpetuating. Romy meets Conan and other imprisoned women including those on death row. She also recalls her ex-life. Her five-year-old son, Jackson and her boyfriend Jimmy were for a while a trio. But Romy is a realist. She knows that Jimmy thought he was slumming it during their relationship. He dumped her immediately she was in trouble.
The Mars Room is part-novel, part indictment of the American prison system. Prisoners need ingenuity to exist with the absurd rules of an institution that reveals itself as petty and brutal in the violation of natural instincts.
Romy's Mother has custody of Jackson. Romy reaches a crisis point when she is informed that her Mother has died, and the little boy been injured in a traffic accident. She is not allowed to find out what has since happened to her child, or where he is. This is due partly to the sadism of a particular warden but mainly to the systematic denial of Romy's rights.
Wild grieving for her child turns Romy from despair to desperation, once again. Kushner has an exciting command of language and her story is terrifying.
Meanwhile, the unnamed heroine of Sweet Days of Discipline has been placed in successive, expensive Swiss boarding schools since she was eight years old. She is now 15; basically an orphan who has parents. Our heroine is occasionally taken out by her Father, who lives in hotels. Her mother writes from Brazil, but only to the headmistress, relaying instructions for the regime she requires for her daughter. We are not told the circumstances of the parents' estrangement.
At the end of each term, pupils leave the school in chauffeured cars. At the beginning of each term, these same pupils arrive in chauffeured cars. When a parent who is the president of his country pays a visit, the headmistress is "excited as a farm animal".
The amenities provided by the fees distinguish these girls from the inmates of a care home or the institution that imprisons Romy but they are similarly alienated and their affections displaced.
The heroine becomes obsessed with a new girl with the strict-sounding name of Frédérique. She is an austere perfectionist dressed in grey. If novels were synaesthetic, this one would be silvery grey, like flim. The prose is sparse but illuminated by sudden effects. "I thought I saw a strange light in her eyes, mad and pointless, like the snowflakes", and "With us there was a kind of fanaticism that prevented any physical expression".
The heroine betrays Frédérique's high standards by befriending an extroverted girl who, once they have all left school, invites her former classmates to her 18th birthday party."The orchestra, the young people, the taffeta, the congratulations." Frédérique does not attend.
Some years later, as adults, the heroine and Frédérique encounter each other by chance. "Her face was partly hidden by her hood, it could have been a veil of marble wrapped around her." Frédérique is living in a freezing, bare room. "She had been the most disciplined, respectful, ordered, perfect girl ... She could even tidy the shelves of the void." The heroine tries to exist for the duration of her visit, in her friend's icy climate where she encounters repressed violence.
Eventually Frédérique attempts to bse in urn down her Mother's house in Geneva with her Mother in it. She is placed in a mental home; presumably as expensive as the previous institutions. This is a strange novel that makes me relieved I don't have the necessary elegance to inhabit its pages. But then I am also relieved not to have the necessary poverty to inhabit Kushner's pages either.
Review by Laura Del Rivo.